U.S. star midfielder Landon Donovan has another big English Premier League game for Everton on Saturday against Manchester United (7:45 a.m. ET, ESPN2), which means that it will be one more chance for Donovan to continue his statement-making form during a 10-week offseason loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy.
How much has Donovan changed his European reputation after three unsuccessful stints in Germany over the years? Keep in mind that he has played only eight games, but the reviews have been universally positive. On Thursday, Donovan was chosen Everton's player of the month in a vote by the team's fans, a clear sign that the American has made an immediate impact while playing on the right side of the midfield for the resurgent Toffees.
When Donovan's loan deal was announced in December, the concern was whether he would have enough time to settle into his new team before having to return to America. But from the moment Donovan started and had an assist in his first game -- a 2-2 tie at Arsenal just seven days after his arrival in England -- it was evident that Everton manager David Moyes trusts him.
Donovan has started every game since. He scored his first European goal in a 2-0 win over Sunderland on Jan. 27. He has provided two assists on inch-perfect corner kicks. He has tracked back well on defense. And he enjoyed his best game in Everton's 2-1 win over league-leading Chelsea on Feb. 10, producing an assist and a drawn penalty while outplaying England left back Ashley Cole. (Cole also broke his ankle in a fair challenge with Donovan and is out for three months.) Donovan is at his best when he's taking on defenders with the ball -- which he has done in some games more than others so far -- but it's clear that his confidence is on the rise. Now we know for certain: Donovan can play in this league.
Most important, he's contributing to victories. During a tough stretch in Everton's schedule -- including games against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City -- the Toffees have won five times in Donovan's eight matches. Before the American's arrival Everton had won only five times in its previous 20 games.
The question now is whether Everton will try to extend Donovan's loan in the same way that AC Milan extended the loan of David Beckham, Donovan's Galaxy teammate, a year ago. This week I spoke to a few people close to the Donovan situation about his time at Everton and what might come next. And while nobody wanted to go on the record, here are some of the things I learned:
• Donovan is likely to return to the Galaxy on March 15 unless there is an MLS work stoppage. While sources say Donovan has enjoyed his time at Everton, he will not come out and publicly state his desire to extend the loan, a la Beckham in '09. Donovan signed a four-year, $9 million contract with MLS in December, and I'm told he will not be upset if he has to come back to Los Angeles. However, Donovan would almost certainly stay in England if there is an MLS work stoppage. The league's owners and players are currently trying to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, and the deadline is next Thursday.
• There is still a chance that Everton may try to extend Donovan's loan. When Moyes came out publicly last week and said that Donovan "unfortunately" would have to return to L.A. in mid-March, those close to the situation viewed it as a potential negotiating tactic with one month to go before Donovan has to come back to MLS. (It's worth noting that Moyes met with Donovan's agent, Richard Motzkin, in England the day before issuing that statement.) There are a few things to keep in mind here. For starters, the Galaxy and MLS got a lot of concessions from Milan last year before allowing Beckham to extend his loan: a significant amount of cash (including Beckham's own money), a friendly game in L.A. against Milan and the disappearance of the opt-out clause in Beckham's contract that would have allowed him to walk away from L.A. at the end of 2009.
Everton may want to extend Donovan's loan -- he has played well, and the team is dealing with injuries to midfielders Marouane Fellaini (out for six months) and Tim Cahill -- but the cash-strapped club may not be able to afford it, and Donovan won't be coughing up his own money to stay. Still, Donovan has five games left to play for Everton before he has to leave, and nothing is ever certain in soccer.
• Even if Everton doesn't extend Donovan's loan, the club (and/or other European clubs) might push for a full transfer this summer after the World Cup. Now that Donovan has shown he can play in the Premiership, the interest in him has no doubt increased. How much would a transfer cost? Part of that would depend on how well Donovan plays at the World Cup. In December I was led to believe that Donovan's new MLS contract included a set transfer price -- his agent, Motzkin, has done similar deals before -- but I have now confirmed that it does not.
That means Donovan's transfer price would still depend on how much Everton (or any other club) wanted him and how much MLS would demand for him. Remember, Donovan has four seasons left on his MLS contract, which means the transfer price would be higher than it was before he signed his new deal (when he had only two years left). There also remains a thorny issue: Is Donovan's singular value to MLS (as its top American star) far higher than what his value would be on the European open market? This was the same issue that kept Milan from reaching a transfer agreement for Beckham in '09.
How much is Donovan worth to MLS right now? I suspect the league would not want to sell its reigning MVP for less than the $10 million it got from Villarreal for Jozy Altidore in '08. Recall, too, that Everton paid around $15 million last summer for midfielder Diniyar Bilyaletdinov -- the same Russian who is now riding the Toffees' bench while Donovan starts. (Bilyaletdinov was 24 at the time of his purchase, however, while Donovan would be 28 this summer.)
• Donovan is succeeding at Everton despite playing out of position. According to the people I've spoken with, Donovan feels more comfortable playing on the left side of the midfield (as he does with the U.S.) than on the right side (where he has played with Everton). When he plays for the U.S. on the left, Donovan can turn and face the field when the ball is on his favored right foot, and he is also given a bit more freedom to break into the center of the field. At Everton, where Steven Pienaar prefers to play on the left side, Donovan is being asked to play on the right.
Still, Donovan's ability to impress on the right has increased his confidence that he can compete at the highest level on a regular basis, which will only help during the World Cup. Where he'll be playing after that -- whether it's with the Galaxy, Everton or some other club -- remains to be seen.
U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu started training for the first time again on Thursday, participating in some drills with the national team in Carson, Calif. He is expected to return to AC Milan soon. The question will be how much playing time he is able to get in the run-up to the World Cup. ... In other injury news, U.S. forward Charlie Davies returned to his French club Sochaux this week to continue his rehab. Davies suffered severe injuries in an auto accident in October and is hoping to make a stunning comeback in time for the World Cup. ... The Sports Business Daily reported that MLS owners and the players' union were expected to meet for collective bargaining negotiations on Thursday as well as next Monday and Tuesday. ... I'll be posting a soccer Mailbag from Tampa next week in advance of the U.S.-El Salvador game on Wednesday. Click on the link at the top of this column to send in your questions.
Back at you next week from Florida ...